Sensationalism vs. Science: Leading Researchers Debunk Media Myth of NFL Suicide Epidemic

The propensity to appeal to the authority of science, or the number of scientists who believe this or that, to shout down opposing views remains one of the age’s great ironies. Pseudoscience, of course, may be about authorities or majorities. Science is about knowledge. To cloak oneself in “science” by deferentially believing anything labeled as such, or by adopting a there’s-safety-in-numbers approach toward oft-cited statistics, isn’t very scientific. One could say in its blind acceptance of anything tangentially associated with science it misses the whole point of science.

This paradox is at work in the urban myth positing an epidemic of NFL suicides. Articles in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and Time, in placing suicide within a larger narrative about the dangers of football, all said that NFL players kill themselves at six times the national average. If the newspaper of record and the leading current events magazine say it’s “science,” it must be science.

Not so says the actual scientist, who, along with several other colleagues within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), conducted the mortality study finding that NFL retirees kill themselves at a rate 59 percent lower than their peers outside of the game. “I have seen incorrect statistics used many times in these situations, whether to refute or to support a certain position,” Dr. Everett Lehman, one of the authors of that federal study on nearly 3,500 NFL retirees, tells Breitbart Sports. “In many cases it is just due to someone not really understanding disease prevalence and rates. While it would seem to be a simple calculation to compare the rate of suicide in a group of NFL players to what would be expected in the general population for the same period of time, it is not that simple. We have developed computer programs to run such comparisons accurately across many disease categories. Of course in some cases there may be those who know the correct statistics but manipulate them to prove a point.”

On this last point, one thinks of Slate’s Josh Levin, who in one article labeled Junior Seau “the most-famous name in the disturbingly long rundown of NFL players who’ve taken their own lives” and then admitted that the “long rundown” may not be so long, after all. “I also don’t believe there’s any good data on whether NFL players commit suicide more often than non-NFL-ers of the same age,” Levin admitted. “But given the NFL’s history of ignoring the potential risks of concussions, it’s not a bad thing to see the pendulum swing so far in the other direction—for the death of a famous player to make NFL fans and Commissioner Roger Goodell stop and think about what they might be abetting.” In other words, let’s all ignore reality to get back at the NFL for ignoring reality.

It’s not just Dr. Lehman and his colleagues in the federal government who have uncovered hard data countering the misperception that Levin and others seek to foster. New studies by a professor at the Harvard Medical School, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, and three researchers associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs all have come to the same conclusion in peer-reviewed journals: the notion that NFL players kill themselves at elevated rates is bogus.

“NFL players are at decreased risk, not increased risk, for completed suicide relative to the general population,” Grant Iverson, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, explained in a recent British Journal of Sports Medicine article. Rejecting claims in the academic press linking chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) with suicide, Loyola University Medical Center’s Christopher Randolph, NYU Langone Medical Center’s Stella Karantzouilis, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kevin Guskiewicz cite the NIOSH study: “The claim of heightened suicidality is particularly interesting given the fact that retired NFL players have significantly lower risk of suicide (less than half the expected rate) than the general population of men their age in the United States.”

A trio of academics affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs ask, “What is the existing evidence in support of a relationship between CTE and suicide”? Their new article in BioMed Research International notes decreased rates of self-inflicted death among NFL players: “Such findings strongly run counter to theories positing that NFL players are at high risk from suicide secondary to high rates of CTE resulting from high rates of multiple [traumatic brain injuries].... relatively low rates of suicide observed among retired NFL players would suggest relatively weak associations between CTE and deaths by suicide.” They label evidence linking the degenerative brain disease found in football players to suicide as “scant,” “low quality,” and containing “a high risk bias.” The trio concludes in “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Suicide: A Systematic Review” that “the current state of the science indicates that suppositions invoking a relationship between CTE and suicide must be viewed as speculative at this point.”

Why do the scribes continue to deny the science?

Because editors know sensationalism sells? Because hyping such scare stories boosts grant money to certain unscrupulous academics? Because retirees base their billion-dollar lawsuit against the NFL in part on the notion that brain-addled players take their own lives in alarming numbers? Because linking a suicide scandal to an entity as popular as the NFL moves books, such as League of Denial, based on this dubious proposition that a disease only recently discovered in football players inspires a Masada-like reaction among them? Because it throws more blood in the water for the media’s feeding frenzy against football?

We don’t know why the urban myth proves so recalcitrant in the face of scientific contradiction. We know only that it does. Just last year, US News and World Report informed readers—more than a year after NIOSH released its exhaustive research showing reduced suicide among NFL veterans—that a “study found that the suicide rate among NFL players to be six times the national average.”

But, as this series has shown, no such study exists. What exists is a perception that such a study exists.

NIOSH’s Chip Lehman believes much confusion could have been avoided if journalists just agreed to cite primary sources. “I have not been able to track down how the 6x figure was calculated (granted, I have not spent a lot of time searching),” Lehman admits. “I know that a lot of sources have referenced ‘gamesover.org’ as their reference. All that website says is: ‘The suicide rate among former NFL players is nearly six times the national average.’ There is often a snowball effect once statistics hit the press because it is difficult to sort out the good statistics from the bad—that can take a lot of time.”

A decade after leading newspapers and magazines began touting the notion that NFL retirees kill themselves at six times the national average, journalists have yet to sort the bad statistics from the good.

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.


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